Read as much as you want on BostonGlobe.com, anywhere and anytime, for just 99¢.

Boston’s ‘first girlfriend’ avoids the spotlight

Lorrie Higgins campaigned for Martin J. Walsh, but his win changed her life, too.

David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/File

Lorrie Higgins campaigned for Martin J. Walsh, but his win changed her life, too.

On a bitter cold evening a few days after Martin J. Walsh was sworn in as the new mayor of Boston, his longtime girlfriend Lorrie Higgins strolled the short distance from her house to his, intending to start making dinner for the two of them. Glancing at the police cruiser stationed permanently in front of his trim gray house, she skipped up the steps and put her key into the lock.

It wouldn’t turn. She tried the other direction. Nothing.

Continue reading below

As she pulled the key out to make sure she had the right one, she felt the eyes of the police officer behind her, staring at her back. She tried the key again, with no success. Turning toward the cruiser, she called out sunnily, “Think he’s trying to tell me something?” The officer did not smile.

Higgins promptly got on her phone and called City Hall and within minutes the situation was resolved: Walsh’s lock had become loose a few days earlier and been replaced with a new one. But in the hubbub of the inauguration, no one had remembered to tell Higgins. With a new key extracted from Walsh’s mailbox in her hand, Higgins and the officer shared a laugh as she let herself in. But for Boston’s first girlfriend, it was the beginning of a quite different kind of life, one that the intensely private waitress and legislative aide is not entirely sure she likes.

Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff/File

Lorrie Higgins (in background) and Martin J. Walsh both grew up in Dorchester. She prefers to stay out of the spotlight.

It is rare these days that she gets to see much of Walsh, her partner of eight years, at all.

Continue reading it below

“I’ve lost him,” she said with a small laugh in a rare interview with the Globe. “He’s gone. . . . He’s just so busy.”

And when she does spend some time with Walsh, who routinely describes her as “the love of my life,” they are rarely alone. The mayor, for security reasons, is routinely driven by a police driver. Others, including Higgins, are not permitted to drive him. In fact, about the only place they can be alone, she quips, is “in the house. With the door shut. Close the blinds!” When they tried to walk the few blocks to a neighborhood restaurant on a recent Sunday morning, the police officer parked outside Walsh’s door inched quietly after them, and parked across the street while they ate breakfast.

“I said, ‘Oh my God, you are not allowed to go anywhere!’ ” recalled Higgins. “It was pretty funny. . . . It’s hard to get used to. It is. That is the hard part.”

Prying eyes even followed her to work. Higgins, the single parent of a 22-year-old daughter, has long juggled two jobs. After Walsh’s victory, well-wishers and the curious began to drop in at 224 Boston Street, the Dorchester restaurant where she has worked for more than 15 years, to get a glimpse of the first girlfriend. Taken aback by the press of interest, Higgins says she decided to take a temporary leave.

“I’m having a little hard time with it, yeah,” Higgins, 41, sighed. “I mean I didn’t work there because it was fun. I worked there because it was a second income. And I also did enjoy everybody I worked with there. . . . I do miss them.”

A private person

If having the underpinnings of one’s life shaken were not difficult enough, there are now the ever-curious reporters inquiring about her relationship with Walsh and many aspects of her life that she would, frankly, prefer not to discuss. Higgins is one of those rarities on the public stage: someone who adamantly does not want to talk about herself.

She agreed only reluctantly to an interview for this story, and Walsh, after making several requests that the story not be written, declined to speak more than briefly.

Although Higgins is clearly pleased about Walsh’s victory and worked long hours behind the scenes to help bring it about, on personal matters beyond that she is clipped: “I’m really not that interesting. I really am not. I’m very quiet, private. I work hard,” she said. “There’s nothing much more to say.”

At a time when domestic partners are often regarded as akin to a spouse — many in the State House where she works refer to her as the city’s first lady — it may be difficult for Higgins to maintain quite the low profile that she prefers. But just what her specific role will be is, so far, unclear.

In other political settings, first girlfriends have opted for varying degrees of visibility. Former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg’s longtime partner, Diana Taylor, the state’s former banking superintendent, chose a relatively public perch and was frequently seen at Bloomberg’s side. Sandra Lee, the willowy celebrity TV cooking show host and author, who lives with Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York, is a familiar media presence but almost always on behalf of her own causes rather than those of her partner.

Meena Bose, director of the Center for the Study of the American Presidency at Hofstra University, says that while voters are keenly interested in the partners of their public officials, they have come to accept that they may not always be publicly active. As Bose observes: “There are no clear-cut rules on this. You can carve out a pretty large zone of privacy if you want to keep your life private.”

To Higgins, struggling to regain her equilibrium these days, that sounds pretty good. Asked whether there are particular issues that would interest her if she ever opted for any sort of public role, she mentioned youth homelessness. Maybe she could get involved in that. But, then, maybe not.

“I might become more comfortable with that as we get further into the four years,” she said. “But it’s pretty brand new right now and I am trying to figure it all out.”

Dorchester youth

They grew up breathing the same ocean-laced air, children of Dorchester’s dense neighborhoods, defined by the perimeters of their parish. Walsh was the russet-haired boy of St. Margaret’s, molded by strong talk and union men. Higgins was the amiable blond girl from St. Williams’ parish, known for her skill on the softball field. Six years apart in age, they drifted infrequently across each other’s paths over the years but did not fully connect until they were adults, both working in the State House.

David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/File

Higgins, shown with Walsh and her daughter, Lauren. Higgins says Walsh and Lauren have developed a close relationship over the years.

For Higgins, the second of four children, the rhythm of life at home was determined in part by the demands of work. Her father, now retired, worked as an electrician at the VA hospital. Her mother worked part time at night for the former Bank of Boston, where Higgins herself began working when she was a high school senior. In order for her mother to get to work by 7 p.m., all of them had to show up promptly at the dinner table.

“We’d all have dinner at 5 o’clock. She was like clockwork,” Higgins recalled. “She’d wrap up dinner and out the door she went.”

So, too, were Higgins’s teenage years colored in part by her own work. Not that she wasn’t a social person: The popular Higgins was a regular at some of the Dorchester hangouts favored by teenagers of the time such as the Savin Hill woods and the tennis courts on Grampian Way, according to a few of those who knew her at the time.

Catholic, she attended the parish elementary school and participated in Catholic Youth Organization softball and basketball teams. Not long after she enrolled in 1987 at the Monsignor Ryan Memorial High School, a Catholic school for girls, Higgins began to work part time as a recreation assistant and receptionist at what was then called the Colonel Daniel Marr Boys & Girls Club.

Mike Joyce, the club’s vice president of programming, remembers Higgins as “a really great kid. She was a real leader among her peers and well liked by the staff. She seemed able to get along with anyone, very outgoing. She’d share a laugh with anyone.”

Another person who had spent time at the Marr was a young man, seven years her senior, who would significantly alter the course of her life — even if he didn’t remain in it very long. His name was Paul J. Campbell, then a friend of the not-yet-famous Mark Wahlberg, a dark-haired rowdy who gradually built up a rap sheet of low-level crimes. Years later, he would serve nine months behind bars. More recently, he had small roles in Wahlberg’s film “The Fighter” in 2010 and in “American Hustle” in 2013.

“He was kind of the bad boy and she was the good girl,” recalled Jessica Broderick, a high school classmate of Higgins. “He was the boy she shouldn’t be hanging out with.”

A defining moment

Shortly before she graduated from high school, Higgins found out she was pregnant. She was not, to be sure, the only girl in the school to find herself in such a state, according to a couple of her schoolmates, nor even the only one in her class. Although few who knew her were aware of her condition, those last weeks of school were a decisive period: The decisions she made then would shape the subsequent two decades of her life. Higgins says she never considered terminating the pregnancy.

“Nobody knew,” she says. “Obviously, it was difficult but it would have been a lot more difficult if she came along a little earlier. Thankfully she did not. But, yeah, sure. It was a difficult time.”

Uncertain about college before she got pregnant, Higgins had been taking business courses in school and planned only on “going into the working world” when she completed high school. The summer after she graduated, Higgins increased her hours at Bank of Boston, where she worked in customer service and continued to work there after her daughter, Lauren, was born.

“I changed shifts a lot,” she said. “I did three 10-hour days, Saturday, Sunday, Monday. Then I did nights. Then I did days as she got older and was in school.”

In the beginning, Higgins tried to do it largely on her own. She lived alone with her daughter for about two years. But finding she needed more help, she moved back home for a couple years and turned to her parents and a close circle of friends for support. When her daughter began to attend school, she took on a second job waitressing and worked occasional catering shifts as well.

“You know, I am not going to say it was easy. It wasn’t easy. But I had family support. I had a core group of friends,” Higgins said, her eyes tearing up. “I did what I had to do. You just do it. You get up, you work, you take care of your daughter, and you just hope you get through the day the best you can. That is pretty much what I still do. Even though she is older, I am still doing the same thing. I just want her to finish school and have opportunities I didn’t have at that time in life.”

Asked whether having a baby at such a young age altered the course of her life, Higgins pauses. But only for a moment. “If I didn’t have a baby, perhaps. Who knows what would have happened. I don’t really think about it, though. It was what it was and that’s life.”

Higgins said Lauren’s paternal grandparents, in the past, were “very, very good to Lauren and me both.” Higgins said none of her family members or close friends would agree to be interviewed for this story, including her daughter who is a senior at the University of Massachusetts Boston.

“We’re very private people,” Higgins said of her family. “I know life has changed and I date the mayor of Boston, but it doesn’t mean they do.”

Devoted parent

Through it all, Higgins has maintained an unwavering focus on her daughter. They have lived together for more than 15 years in an apartment in a pale green house on Savin Hill, now flanked by a sign reading “God Bless America” to one side, and a red, white, and blue campaign poster for Walsh on the other. The mayor lives a short walk away.

As Walsh describes the pair: “Lauren is her world. They have a special bond and love.”

Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff/File

On election night, Walsh called Higgins “the love of my life and my best friend.”

Over the years, Higgins and Walsh, who share a number of common friends from childhood, ran into each other socially at parties and family events. When he first ran for a seat in the state House of Representatives in 1997, she campaigned for him holding signs on the street and attending fund-raisers and events on his behalf. In the years to come, she continued to pitch in on his campaigns.

“I just thought he was very genuine, very good for the neighborhood, very involved in the community,” Higgins said. “And also I knew him prior.”

But not once did she ever consider him a romantic prospect.

“No! Never. Never. Nope,” she exclaims. “I just wasn’t. . . . It just wasn’t happening back then. I don’t know why.”

Nor was she particularly interested in dating anyone seriously in those days, she says. When one blossoming relationship did not work out, she said, she was just as glad to resume a single focus on her daughter.

“My main focus was just trying to raise Lauren to the best of my ability,” Higgins explained. “She was my number one priority in life. Marriage really wasn’t important to me.”

So, too, did Higgins decide that college would have distracted her too much from her daughter: “Too much for me to handle financially and time-wise,” she says. Instead, while Lauren attended school, Higgins continued to work at the bank and the restaurant.

In 2000, a friend suggested she apply for a job opening with the state Judiciary Committee. The friend had heard about the job from another one of her friends, then Representative Marty Walsh, who was close to the committee chairman, Eugene O’Flaherty. Higgins wound up getting the job of legislative aide, responsible for tracking legislation and handling constituent inquiries, which she has held for 14 years.

Committee members speak highly of her work there, saying that her orderliness and unflappable nature make her well suited to the job.

“When Lorrie walks in the room she is not looking for much attention, except maybe from Marty,” said Representative Russell Holmes, who left the committee a year ago. “She is discreet. She keeps her head down and she gets the job done. That is a good aide. And that is Lorrie.”

It would take another six years, until 2006, before Walsh began to pursue her. At first, she dismissed his invitations to dinner and the movies, thinking he was just goofing around. But Walsh persisted, he recalls, “for a while. I dunno. Probably a few months.” Eventually, Higgins agreed to lunch at an Italian restaurant in Quincy.

Why she broke down in the end, “I don’t know,” Higgins says. “But I did. I went to lunch. In my mind I was thinking, ‘This is not a date.’ I kept telling myself that. ‘This is not a date.’ ”

That non-date led to another, and more after that. Within a few months, they were a couple. Walsh, 46, seems deeply smitten. As he held her close to his side on election night, he declared her, “the love of my life and my best friend.”

Strong individuals

Higgins says that part of the reason their relationship works so well is that the two of them have both been busy with their individual pursuits. In the beginning, she says, she was a preoccupied mother of a teenage daughter, “not having much time. But you know what, it worked out because he was very busy. . . . We weren’t looking to spend every minute of every day with each other. So, it just worked for us.”

In the days before Walsh’s name became a household word, the two had a fairly regular routine. During the week, they generally dined together twice, although Higgins always returned to her own home to spend the night in order to be with her daughter. On Friday nights, Higgins waitressed and Walsh went his own way. Saturday night and one day a weekend they generally spent together.

Raised a short distance from the shore line, they both like to go to the beach. They are also fans of Broadway shows and the Red Sox. This past Christmas, she says, he bought them tickets to an appearance of Prince at Mohegan Sun, where they spent the night.

Higgins also shares Walsh’s keen interest in politics. She volunteered on behalf of John F. Kerry’s presidential campaign in 2004, and she has helped out a few Boston City Council candidates as well.

When Walsh threw his hat in the ring for the mayor’s office, Higgins contributed behind the scenes at campaign headquarters many nights after work doing phone banking and mailings. In the final weeks of the race, she joined Walsh on the campaign trail, but admits, “I didn’t really love that part.”

Over the years, Walsh developed a close relationship with Lauren and at times, Higgins says, “she got along better with Marty than she did with me. He had a way of getting through to her that I didn’t.” Lauren often encourages her mother to tie the knot with Walsh, saying, “just marry him!” But Higgins firmly says no. At least she has so far.

“I like to keep our separate homes and have control of Lauren and I really didn’t think or feel the need to uproot her in the middle of her teenage years to move in with somebody else,” Higgins said. “I didn’t want to do that.”

When Lauren eventually moves out, Higgins says she might consider marrying Walsh. But she also points out that he has not asked her.

“We have discussed it,” she said. “But, no, there has never been an official proposal at all. That is false reporting.”

Marriage is not something either of them is thinking about much now. It’s hard enough for them to get together for dinner these days. As they both adjust to the demands of City Hall, Higgins is trying to regain some sense of normalcy in her life. Or as political adviser Michael Goldman put it in an e-mail: “To be blunt, right now her main concern is keeping as low profile as possible and trying to return to the anonymity that she enjoyed before Marty’s election.”

Higgins understands that she needs to share her man with the city. And she is willing to be patient. At least for awhile.

“He tries but he’s too busy right now,” Higgins said. “He needs to be busy. He needs to figure it all out and get situated. If it’s still like this in a year, he might hear me complain.”

Stephanie Ebbert of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Sally Jacobs can be reached at sally.jacobs@globe.com.
Loading comments...
Subscriber Log In

You have reached the limit of 5 free articles in a month

Stay informed with unlimited access to Boston’s trusted news source.

  • High-quality journalism from the region’s largest newsroom
  • Convenient access across all of your devices
  • Today’s Headlines daily newsletter
  • Subscriber-only access to exclusive offers, events, contests, eBooks, and more
  • Less than 25¢ a week
Marketing image of BostonGlobe.com
Marketing image of BostonGlobe.com